Raft, Hike and Explore California’s Scenic Sierra Nevada
This unforgettable California road trip takes you from the mesmerizing blue waters of Lake Tahoe to the raging waterfalls of Yosemite and back. Along the way, pass over stunning mountain passes, stop for some whitewater action, stretch your legs on a hike or two and enjoy a dip in a natural hot spring. Here’s the route…
Gateway: Lake Tahoe
Plan a day at the beginning of your trip to drive the 72-mile loop around Lake Tahoe and take in the stunning vistas and charming mountain towns along the way. Don’t miss your chance to get out on that crystal-clear water either. Stop by one of the many outfitters in the area like Kayak Tahoe and rent a kayak or stand up paddleboard for the afternoon. Then, head to Baldwin Beach, which gives you the chance to paddle the lake’s rugged shoreline to iconic Emerald Bay.
Leg 1: South Lake Tahoe to Auburn/Coloma
From the north shore of “Big Blue,” take CA-267N to Truckee where you’ll head west on I-80 through the Tahoe National Forest toward Auburn. About 10 minutes outside of this charming Gold Country town, you can meet up with an outfitter for an ultra-exciting, 1-day Middle Fork of the American River rafting trip. This Class IV+ adventure is best-known for taking paddlers on a wild romp through notorious Tunnel Chute Rapid.
After your American River rafting adventure in Auburn, or nearby Coloma, follow California’s historic Highway 49 south past other picturesque gold rush towns like Angels Camp and Sonora, which offer a variety of shops, creative eateries, wineries and pubs. Take your time to savor this unique corridor and consider a side trip to Moaning Caverns or Big Trees State Park, which are short detours along the route. Once in Sonora, take CA-108W to CA-120E which takes you into Yosemite National Park via the Big Oak Flat Entrance. Plan to spend at least three days in the park if you can, but if you’re short on time, the classic hike to the top of Nevada Falls via The Mist Trail never disappoints. Otherwise, if you have more time, check out this ultimate 3-day Yosemite itinerary for other hiking recommendations, hidden gems, lodging info and more.
Leg 3: Yosemite to Tahoe
Head east out of the park via Tioga Road/CA-120 to explore the off-the-beaten-path Eastern Sierra. In Lee Vining, grab lunch at the infamous Whoa Nellie Deli before heading north on before heading north on California’s scenic Highway 395, a stretch of road known for its sweeping mountain views, hidden hot springs and eclectic pit stops. As you make your way back to Tahoe, take a short stroll to see the curious “tufa towers” at Mono Lake, and stop for a soak at Travertine Hot Springs near Bridgeport, the ultimate finale to this California road trip.
For more road trip inspiration, check out our library of itineraries from some of the West’s biggest travel hubs.
An earlier version of this article was published in 2012. It was updated with new information and republished February 2021.
Photos: Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay – Photo by Stephen Walker/Unsplash; Rafting on the South Fork American River – Hotshots Imaging; Nevada Falls in Yosemite – Wanderlove; Mono Lake tufas – Photo by Eniko Polgar/Unsplash